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Full text of "The English Ballad of Judas Iscariot"

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IX.— THE ENGLISH BALLAD OP JUDAS ISCAEIOT 

Unusual interest attaches to the ballad of Judas, not 
only because the manuscript in which it is found antedates 
by two centuries the manuscript of any other English popu- 
lar ballad, but also because the story it tells is very nearly 
unique. The manuscript, Trinity College, Cambridge, B. 
14. 39, was written in the 13th century; just where is 
uncertain. 1 The ballad has been frequently printed, 2 but 
not correctly until 1904, in the Cambridge Edition of the 
Ballads. 3 It was Professor Child who first recognized the 

1 The manuscript has had something of a history; cf. M. R. James, 
The Western Manuscripts in . . . Trinity College, Cambridge, I, pp. 
438 ff. (no. 323, § 17). Professor Skeat believed that the scribe was 
a Norman. Dr. James suggests that "the occurrence of verses on 
Robert Grosseteste may be construed as bearing on the provenance of 
the MS." 

2 Wright and Halliwell, Reliquiae Antiquae, 1841, I, p. 144 ; Matz- 
ner, Altenglische Sprachproben, 1867, I, p. 114; Child, English and 
Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882, i, p. 242 (no. 23) and v, p. 288. 
The Cambridge Edition of the Ballads says the Judas ballad was 
first printed in 1845, but the first edition of the Reliquiae Antiquae 
was in 1841. 

* The manuscript has .it. at the end of lines 8, 25, and 30. Wright 
omitted this sign, and did not divide the poem into stanzas. Pro- 
fessor Child had seen only Wright's printed copy. In the Cambridge 
Edition Professor Kittredge, who had a transcript of the ballad made 
by Skeat after the manuscript was rediscovered in 1896, recognized the 
atrophic device (indicated in the manuscript by .ii. ) of repeating the 
last line of a stanza as the first line of the following stanza (as in 
st. 5, 14, 17 ) ; but it is very curious that Professor Child apparently 
recognized this device in stanza 14, and overlooked it in the other 
two cases. — The language of the ballad is Southern. Following 
Matzner, Child emended Wright's s in meist, heist e, etc. (lines 6, 19, 
21, 22, 28, 31, 33, 34, of the Cambridge Edition) to h. In the Cam- 
bridge Edition the s, which is the manuscript reading, is restored. 
I think it is likely that the scribe miswrote s for i; at any rate, the 
phenomenon is exceedingly odd. 

181 



182 PAUIX FRANKLIN BATJM 

Judas poem as a ballad; but no one has questioned his 
judgment. 

Ballads are, of course, of indefinite age. The ballad of 
Judas, though we have it in writing so much earlier than 
that of any other, is not thereby necessarily older. The lan- 
guage, moreover, shows no sign of being earlier than the 
manuscript. But although there is no direct evidence for 
believing the ballad to be older than the thirteenth century, 
there is, on the other hand, nothing to indicate that the 
story may not be much older. Indeed, a priori considera- 
tions point to its being very much older. And in view of 
the fact that analogous — though not exactly parallel — 
material turns up in Germany and in Africa, we may ten- 
tatively suggest a possible relationship, and therefore, by 
implication, but not necessarily, a very early date. 

On Maundy Thursday (says the ballad) Judas sets out, 
at our Lord's bidding, to Jerusalem to buy food, with thirty 
' plates ' of silver on his back ; in the broad street he may 
meet some of his townsmen. He meets his sister, the de- 
ceitful woman, who ridicules him for believing in the 
' false prophet ' and then induces him to go to sleep with 
his kead in her lap — and when he awakes the silver has 
been stolen. In utter despair he finds a rich Jew named 
Pilate, and makes a bargain with him to sell his Master 
for precisely the thirty pieces of silver that have been taken 
from him. Then Jesus sits down with his apostles to eat, 
and announces that he has been sold; and at the very 
moment when Peter and Judas are denying implication 
in the crime, Pilate arrives with ten hundred knights. 

Professor Child mentions the tragic, (Edipodean tale 
which the Middle Ages told as the life of Judas,* and he 

*Cf. Legenita Aurea, ed. Graesse, ch. xlv. This legend is at least 
as 1 old as the 12th century, and enjoyed an immense popularity 
throughout Europe. I have been investigating its history for some 
time, au.d hope to publish before very long the results of my study. 



THE ENGLISH BALLAD OF JUDAS ISCAEIOT 183 

summarizes the usual story of the thirty coins ; 5 but, as 
he indicates, neither of these has any connexion with the 
ballad. Very important, however, is the Wendish folk- 
song to which Professor Child drew attention. 8 Here the 
story is that the Highest God, wandering through the wide 
world, came to the house of a poor widow, and sought shel- 
ter. The widow complained that she had no bread in the 
house, but He offered to buy some for thirty pieces of 
silver, and asked who would fetch it. Judas volunteered, 
and went out into the street of the Jews. There some of 
his countrymen, who were gambling under a tub, invited 
him to join them. Judas replied, " Whether I play or 
not, I shall lose everything." The first two stakes he 
won; at the third play he lost all. Then the Jews asked him 
why he was so sad, and advised him to sell his Master for 
thirty pieces of silver. — Jesus asks who has sold him. 
John, Peter, and Judas say, " Is it I ? " and to Judas the 
Master replies, " False Judas, thou knowest best." — Judas 
was seized with remorse and ran to hang himself. God 
cried after him, " Turn back, thy sin is forgiven." 7 But 
Judas ran on, came to a fir tree and said, " Soft wood, wilt 
hold me ? " He ran on, came to an aspen, and said, 
" Hard wood, wilt hold me ? " He hanged himself on the 
aspen, which still trembles in fear of the judgment day. 
" According to the ballads, 8 then," says Professor Child, 

" Godfrey of Viterbo, Pantheon, Part, xx; etc. And cf. Budge, Book 
of the Bee, p. 95; and R. Duval, Litterature Syriaque, p. 116. 

• Leopold Haupt und J. E. Schmaler, Volkssagen der Wenden, i, pp. 
276-8 (no. ccr-xxxrv), Grimma, 1841. The term 'Wends' is here 
used in the narrow sense, meaning the inhabitants of Lusatia (Ober- 
und Nieder-Lausitz). 

' Cf. Pitrt, Fiahe, novelle e raceonti, Palermo, 1875, I, p. cxxxviii, 
where after the betrayal Jesus says to Judas : ' Repent, Judas, for I 
pardon you '; but he went away and hanged himself on a tamarind 
tree. 

* That is, the English and the Wendish. 



184 PAULL FBANKLIN BATJM 

" Judas lost the thirty pieces at play, or was robbed of 
them, with collusion of his sister. But his passionate 
behavior in the English ballad, st. 9, goes beyond all appar- 
ent occasion. Surely it was not for his tithe of the thirty 
pieces." 9 This last stricture is justified, although such 
extravagant madness is conventional in mediaeval litera- 
ture. Perhaps the author of the ballad was ' thinking 
ahead ' and had in mind Judas's remorse for the betrayal 
of Jesus ; or possibly by some accident of transmission the 
ninth stanza has been transposed from a later part of the 
ballad, now lost, where his final remorse was described. 

The points of similarity between the two ballads are 
numerous, and for the most part obvious. In both Judas 
goes out with thirty pieces of silver, at Christ's bidding, 
to buy food for the apostles. In both he meets with fellow- 
townsmen in the city. In both he is tricked out of his 
money, in the one case by theft, in the other by gambling. 
In both his grief and despair are emphasized. In both, 
of course, he sells Jesus for thirty pieces of silver; but 
in the English ballad it is to Pilate, and he receives the 
very money he has lost, while there is no indication that the 
plan of selling his Master was suggested to him by the 
Jews. In both there is the same quick transition to the 
scene in which Jesus makes known to the apostles that he 
has been sold. Peter and Judas, of course, deny all guilt 
(the Wendish ballad adds John) — and here the ballads 
diverge. In the Wendish, Judas is branded as the false 
one; he suffers remorse and hangs himself, first on a fir 
then on an aspen. In the English, Pilate arrives with his 

'St. 9 reads: 

He drou hym selue bi be cop, bat al it lauede ablode; 
be Iewes out of Iurselem awenden he were wode. 

This is just after he has become aware of his loss. 



THE ENGLISH BALLAD OF JXJDAS ISCABIOT 185 

knights (a variant of the scene on the Mount of Olives) ; 
and the ballad breaks off. The complete version may per- 
fectly well have gone on with an account of Judas' s re- 
morse and hanging. 

That the two ballads should agree in the main story is 
to be expected, because they both follow Biblical tradition ; 
but that, while differing in some respects, they should agree 
in several non-Biblical details of incident and in structure 
is truly remarkable. There is nothing, to be sure, in this 
parallelism that cannot be accounted for by coincidence; 
but it seems to me more reasonable to assume some sort of 
indirect or distant relationship. Of just what sort, it is 
idle to speculate without more data. 

With these two ballads I should like to compare an 
interesting fragment from the Coptic Gospels of the Twelve 
Apostles, 10 which Origen considered to be, along with the 
Gospel according to the Egyptians, the very oldest apocry- 
pha, possibly even anterior to Luke. 11 Here it is the wife 
of Judas who is at the bottom of all his villainy. Every 
day Judas stole something from the bag and brought it to 
his wife. 12 But she was a woman of insatiable avarice, 
and when he did not bring home enough to please her she 
would hold him up to ridicule. One day, because of her 
greed, she said to him: "Lo, the Jews seek thy Master. 

10 Patrologia Orientalis, n, 2, Les Apocryphes Coptes, I, Les tilvam- 
giles des Douee Apdtres. Edited and translated by E. Revillout. 
Taris, 1904. This fragment is the 5th, pp. 156-7. 

u M. S. L. 13, 1802. Other Fathers regarded it as not so early. 

a Compare the Provencal Passion, still in manuscript, in which an 
early version of the usual legend of parricide and incest is found, at 
the end of which Jesus promises to Judas's wife and two children 
a tithe of the company's receipts for their support. MS. Bibliotheque 
Nationale (Paris), nouv. acq. fr. 4232, fol. 32v. It must be remem- 
bered, however, that this wife in the Coptic Gospel can have no con- 
nexion with the mother-wife of Judas in the mediaeval vitae Judae. 



186 PAUXL FBANKLIN BATTM 

Deliver him to them, and they will give thee great riches 
in return." Judas listened to his wife, just as Adam did 
to Eve, and under the power of her evil eye went to the 
Jews and bargained to sell his Master for thirty pieces 
of silver. When he had received the money he took it to 
his wife and said — . The remainder is lost. 

The parallelism between this legend and the English 
ballad is not particularly close, but the two stories have this 
in common, that they both tend to shift the burden of guilt 
from Judas himself to a woman, his sister or wife. This 
tendency to shelter Judas or to palliate his crime is essen- 
tially Oriental ; and although the Coptic fragment and the 
English ballad may independently represent a sort of 
attempt at motivation of the sudden incomprehensible be- 
trayal, I am inclined to suppose some kind of relationship, 
devious and distant enough, between the two. 

Although we have no means of following the early his- 
tory of this ballad material, we may naturally turn to the 
Gospels as the ultimate source of part of it. The very ease 
with which the incidents of both the English and "Wendish 
ballads could have sprung from a popular distortion of the 
Biblical history is a strong argument against the theory of 
any closer relationship of the ballads than that of having 
the same ultimate origin, — that is to say, of any relation- 
ship at all. ' And yet I think one must overstress the ele- 
ment of coincidence if one would deny the probability of 
some connexion. 

For the journey to buy bread the obvious source is John 
4, 8. When Jesus met the woman of Samaria at Jacob's 
well " his disciples were gone away into the city to buy 
meat" — tva rpo<f>a<: aycopdaaxn. Since Judas was treas- 
urer and steward, it was natural to choose him for the 
errand. Moreover, in the Huldreich text of the Toldoth 



THE ENGLISH BALLAD OF JUDAS ISCABIOT 187 

Jeschu, 13 when Jesus and his companions are on the way 
to Jerusalem, Judas offers to go to the city to huy bread. 14 
The difficulty of the disciples in obtaining food is perhaps 
reflected in the story of the miraculous feeding of the five 
thousand, which both Matthew and Mark tell twice, 15 and 
may have made a vivid appeal to the popular mind. 16 

13 Sistoria Jeschuae Nassareni, Leyden, 1705, p. 53. 

"Here it is an imaginary city, Laisch (Latium?). Cf. Samuel 
Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach jiidischen Quellen, Berlin, 1902, p. 163 n. 
For a somewhat analogous incident in the Koran cf. Krauss, p. 199. 

15 Mt. 14, 15 ff.; 15, 32 ff. Mk. 6, 35 ff.; 8, Iff. 

" A travesty of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand is found 
in the Huldreich version, p. 51. On the journey from Rome to Jeru- 
salem (the same on which Judas later went to Laisch to buy food) 
Jesus, Peter, and Judas stopped at a small inn, and mine host had 
only one goose to offer his three guests. Jesus then took the goose 
and said, "This is verily not sufficient for three persons; let us go 
to sleep, and the whole goose shall be his who shall have the best 
dream." Whereupon they lay down to slumber. In the middle of 
the night Judas rose up and ate the goose. When morning came the 
three met, and Peter said, " I dreamed I sat at the foot of the throne 
of Almighty God." And to him Jesus answered, " I am the son of 
Almighty God, and I dreamed that thou wert seated near me; my 
dream is therefore superior to thine, and the goose shall be mine to 
eat." Then Judas said, " And I, while I was dreaming, ate the 
goose." And Jesus sought the goose, but vainly, for Judas had 
devoured it. — Similar tales are reported by Vansleb, who travelled in 
Egypt in the seventeenth century. Cf. Gustave Brunet, Les ilvan- 
giles Apocryphes, 2nd edition, Paris, 1863. The tale of a person out- 
witting his two companions in this way is, of course, very widespread. 
It is doubtless of Oriental origin, and got into the literature of the 
West probably through the Disciplina Clericalis. Cf. Contes Moralises 
de Nicole Bozon, ed. by L. T. Smith and P. Meyer, Soc. des anc. textes 
frang., Paris, 1889, p. 293. It is one of the exempla of Jacques de 
Vitry. Bozon tells it to illustrate the proverb : ' Qui tot coveite tot 
perde.' M. Meyer believes that the Gesta Romanorum (Oesterley, 
ch. 106) drew from Bozon rather than from Petrus Alphonsi. The 
Alphabet of Tales, however, gives Petrus as its source for the story 
(ccxxxvm, ed. by H. H. Banks, E. E. T. S., p. 166). Goedeke, Orient 
und Occident, in (1864), p. 191, gives several other references, to 
Eastern and Western versions, and shows its occurrence in jEsopie 



188 PATJLL FEANKLIN BAUM 

There is nothing in the G-ospels to suggest the sister of 
Judas in the English ballad ; but in the early Coptic text 
there is his wife with the evil eye and the inordinate love 
of money. Here is apparent, as I have suggested, a desire 
to shield Judas from the ignominy of having sold his Mas- 
ter by making him only an agent; and the choice of a 
woman to bear the responsibility of the crime is certainly 
of a piece with the usual Oriental attitude toward women. 
The general abuse of women which runs through so much 
of Western novelistic literature is practically all of East- 
ern importation. It is not at home in the West ; it is not 
a popular motif there; and we feel therefore the more 
justified, when we find an isolated instance of it, as in the 
Judas ballad, in assuming an Oriental origin, — especially 
when we can find an Oriental analogy. Note, moreover, 
that in the ballad Judas's sister is not an evil woman, but 
the evil woman (pe swikele wimon), as though she were a 
person with a well-known history;, and that the Coptic 
Gospel emphasizes by repetition the woman's bad charac- 
ter : ' la malice de ses yeux et son insatiabilite . . . par 
suite de l'insatiabilite et du mauvais ceil de cette femme.' 

The role of Pilate in the English ballad can be nothing 
but a popular corruption or misunderstanding of the Bib- 
lical story medisevalized. Since he had a large share in 
the destruction of Jesus, he might naturally have been the 
one to pay Judas ; and as an important personage he would 
of course be a knight. Judas's apparent anxiety to get 
back the identical thirty ' plates ' which were stolen from 
him is an exaggeration intended doubtless to emphasize 

literature. (I am indebted to Professor Kittredge for references to 
Goedeke, Bozon, and the Alphabet of Tales.) Judas's connexion 
with this tale seems to be entirely limited to the East. In the 
Toldoth, of course, it is part of his role always to get the better of 
Jesus. 



THE ENGLISH BALLAD OF JUDAS ISCABIOT 189 

his remorse. How Pilate should be in possession of just 
those coins is a point (unless it implies that he was an 
accomplice of the theft) on which the narrator would sim- 
ply say : so it was. 

The other incidents of the ballad — so far as it goes — are 
in essential agreement with the Gospel narrative. The 
story of Judas's hanging on the fir and aspen in the 
Wendish ballad has various folk-lore ramifications which 
need not be discussed now. But one would certainly like 
to know the close of the English ballad. 

Beyond all doubt it is a far cry from first-century Egypt 
to thirteenth-century England to nineteenth-century Lu- 
satia. One might almost speak of the inherent improba- 
bility of tracing any relationship among tales or parts of 
tales so isolated and widely separated; and, to be sure, I 
do not pretend to have traced, in any strict sense, such a 
relationship. But the more one studies the mysteries of 
comparative folk-lore, the more one comes to look upon 
almost anything as possible, and to identify probability 
with possibility. At any rate, a dim light is better than 
none at all. 

Pattll Fbanklin Baxtm.